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Caetana's Sweet Song.

Readers familiar with Jorge Amado's robust Brazilian novels will recognize Nelida Pinon's cast of characters: the powerful landowner; the luscious and lusty babe; the snobby, up-tight society lady; the town poet; the corrupt official; the chorus of prostitutes. However, Pinon's uniquely feminine perspective throws new light on old archetypes. While Amado's he-men and earthy women fulfill distinctly male fantasies, Pinon's characters do not fulfill any fantasies at all. Instead, they incarnate the insecurity, confusion, fear and sadness that permeate small-town Brazil.

Pinon's protagonists are Polidoro Alvez, a manipulative cattle baron who owns vast tracts of land, and Caetana, an itinerant actress and circus performer. The two engage in a torrid love affair for which Polidoro's stuffy, ambitious wife Dodo never forgives him. Caetana puts an end to the romance by disappearing unexpectedly, leaving Polidoro to pine. For the next twenty years the cattle baron nurtures and embellishes his memories, fantasizing about his extraordinary sexual prowess. And then, one day, Caetana announces her return.

To Polidoro's chagrin, Caetana is not interested in renewing the affair. After spending twenty years playing small-town theaters and make-shift circus rings, she knows she is a failure. What she wants now is one last stab at glory. She demands that Polidoro grant her a wish he promised long ago. Caetana wants to be Maria Callas for just one night. Dutifully, Polidoro has the decrepit movie theater decorated with artistic pretensions, in order to create the illusion of a grand opera. Caetana teaches her cast, the town prostitutes and the local pharmacist, to mouth the words to La Traviata. However, Dodo catches wind of what is going on and finds her own way to bring the house down.

By depicting the traditional arche-types twenty years later, in the autumns of their lives, Pinon skews her perspective in order to expose the warts on the macho image. Polidoro is an insecure, unhappy man who lives in a fantasy world propped up by money and memories. Caetana, in contrast, may be a tired, old small-time actress, but she faces her failures head-on and perseveres in her struggle for one glorious triumph. Even when Polidoro offers to set her up in her own house, Caetana refuses, preferring independence to comfort.

Caetana's vision and sense of purpose are contagious. She instills in her scraggly cast a new appreciation for art and for themselves as artists. The town prostitutes are not happy hookers, but flabby, aging trollops who are terrified of growing old and losing their livelihoods. They desperately hang on to each other (not to the men) for solace and security. For a short time Caetana transforms them into divas, giving them a renewed sense of self, and even though in the end they go back to being prostitutes, they will never be the same.

Pinon's novel is a celebration of the power of art to transform life. It is a tribute to the theater people who never become stars, but who tread the back roads and endure hunger and misery in order to bring art to the hinterlands.

In spite of Helen Lane's often leaden translation, Caetana's Sweet Song is a fascinating, insightful novel. Pinon explores the complexities of small-town Brazil and of human nature in general with humor, compassion, and extraordinary perspicacity.
COPYRIGHT 1992 Organization of American States
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Copyright 1992 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Mujica, Barbara
Publication:Americas (English Edition)
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jul 1, 1992
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